More than a month after Venezuela’s contested presidential election, President Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory has yet to be recognized by the United States. Refusing to legitimize the new premier while a partial recount of the vote is underway, the US position has led to further political tensions in a relationship historically stressed under the leadership of former President Hugo Chávez.
A handful of countries, including Chile, Peru, and the US, have expressed concern over the democratic standards of the election, which Maduro won by a little more than 1 percent of the vote. Venezuela’s opposition party is calling for the results to be annulled, citing over 3,000 instances of election fraud, ranging from alleged multiple-voting in chavista-strongholds to polling booth intimidation.
“Obviously, if there are huge irregularities we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government,” said Secretary of State John Kerry during a hearing of the US Foreign Affairs Committee following the announcement of President Maduro’s victory in April.
While the US has pledged not to interfere with Venezuelan politics, the refusal to recognize Maduro's presidency has left many to question what message the US is trying to send, and how – if at all – it will impact Venezuela post-Chávez.
“[The US isn’t] recognizing or failing to recognize,” says David Smilde, professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. “They’re just waiting. But here in Venezuela that’s seen as an act of belligerence.”
The US’s reluctance to accept the new leader affects little in economic terms; the heavy crude is still flowing steadily from the Venezuelan oil fields into US refineries, a trading relationship upon which Venezuela relies heavily, particularly following the recent slump in global oil prices. In fact, many believe the US’s reluctance to legitimize Maduro amounts to little more than a message to other regional observers.
“Maduro is certainly now the president of Venezuela,” says Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University in Texas. “The US’s refusal to recognize him is more symbolic than anything else. Ignoring Maduro’s win sends a signal to other Latin American countries that these elections didn’t meet minimum democratic standards.”
Other observers cite the socialist leader’s continued belligerence toward Washington – Maduro blames the US government’s “dark forces” for the death of Mr. Chávez and has pursued the provocative rhetoric of his predecessor – as a factor in the US’s reluctance to recognize Maduro as president.
“You can’t blame the US for not extending their hand,” says Mr. Smilde. “Maduro has been denouncing US conspiracies since the day Chávez died.”
Maduro reacted publicly to President Obama’s announcement that the US was withholding recognition of his victory by describing the US president as the “Grand chief of devils” and threatening to cut off oil exports to the country.“That’s an entirely hollow threat,” says Professor Jones, “96 percent of Venezuela’s export revenues come from oil, so Maduro is not going to do anything to upset that.”
Meanwhile, other countries in the region were quick to congratulate Maduro on his victory. In fact, the new leader spent last week on a whistle-stop tour of friendly regional governments including Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in an attempt to secure his leadership status.
“Things haven’t been going well for Maduro since the election,” says Smilde. “his recent touring of the continent has been a very obvious attempt to demonstrate his legitimacy.”
Following the hotly contested election, which many Venezuelans believe was stolen by a socialist government fearing the loss of power, country-wide protests erupted. Riot police fought protesters with tear gas and nightly "cacerolazo" sound protests filled the capital with a cacophony of noise. Although officially victorious, Maduro’s slim win compared to the eleven percent by which Chávez defeated the same opponent last October left the new premier with little mandate to govern.
“A lot of Venezuelans seem to think that a close election is not a valid election, so this leaves room for Maduro’s critics to question it,” says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy research, an independent think-tank in Washington. Mr. Weisbrot says he thinks the US is trying to take advantage of this situation.
Far from putting a dent in Maduro’s credibility, other observers believe that continued tensions between Venezuela and the US serve as a positive for a president whose supporters have come to expect belligerence towards “las imperialistas.”
“In many ways John Kerry is doing Maduro a favor by not recognizing him,” says Jones. “The US’s refusal to cooperate plays into the socialists’ broader narrative that the US is conspiring to defeat Venezuela’s revolution.”
Others are less convinced by Maduro’s bluster, seeing a politician weakened by his lack of mandate at home. “He’d definitely like the US to recognize him,” says Gerardo Munck, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “There’s nothing he can do to pressure the US, but to be seen as having been duly elected would put him in a far stronger position both at home and internationally.”
With neither side showing any inclination toward compromise, the standoff between the two countries also shows no sign of ending. But Maduro’s long-term challenges are looming. Inflation in the socialist country is nearing 30 percent, there is public anger over the chronic shortages of basic goods, and the ballooning murder rate exceeds Europe and the United States’s combined.
“Maduro is going to have to tackle these problems if he’s going to last as president,” says Mr. Munck. “[U]nless there’s some change in the way he handles the situation, the US isn’t going to budge.”